For most of my life I have had a completely unwarranted hate-on for Hawaii. My feelings about the island were formed in my Calgary youth, when I associated its tropical climes with the jerks and jocks who returned to school each January with bronzed bods and puka shell necklaces. Instead, I longed for the romance of the great cities, to be a traveler and not a tourist. I wanted to devote my leisure time to the development of my intellect, seeing their seaside antics as a clear indication of their inferior breeding. In retrospect, I was simply jealous: of their wealth, and of the easy confidence that seemed to come with it. Still, as I grew older, my feelings about Hawaii remained. Like a grown woman whose dislike of beets was based on a 35 year-old memory of a nightmarish late-night rejoinder, I held strong to my childhood convictions, never allowing for the possibility that as it was with the beets, I might one day become a fan.
And so it was that for the last few years, my parents’ suggestion that we join them in Hawaii was met with a far from enthusiastic shrug. But as parents often do, they persisted, and today, I am the happy beneficiary of their determination. For Hawaii, or Maui, which is the island upon which I am currently stationed, is a remarkably beautiful and relaxing place, replete with an abundance of tropical fruit, an ocean full of exotic fishes and playful sea turtles, and a schedule that puts a fruity drink in your hand at exactly 3:00 in the afternoon. It also has a biodiversity that is truly astounding, allowing you to pass from sun-baked arid plains to fog-engulfed rain forest in less than 30 minutes.
As a lower-case foodie and when-possible locavore, I was excited about digging into the local fare. However, a trip to the nearby farmer’s market made clear that eating locally means getting creative with a relatively limited slate. There is coffee in abundance, and plenty of steak-y fish. There are mangoes, bananas, papayas and coconuts, and there is pig – not pork, pig. There is arugula and basil and Lacinato kale. There are super-sweet Maui onions, giant avocados that never seem to be ripe and plenty of chevre. And there is starch: taro and manioc and blue sweet potatoes. If you drive for awhile, you can get your hands on some fresh eggs and milk, but pretty much everything else is shipped in from the mainland. And though I had a hankering for some naturally smoked bacon, when I saw it came from New Jersey, I was too overwhelmed by the wrongness of it all to make the purchase.
We have also been checking out the local delicacies. Today, having checked our trusted guide Road Food for suggestions, and made the less than inspiring journey to a mini-mall near to the airport, we stopped for the plate lunch at Da Kitchen. From what I have been able to surmise, the plate lunch is a Hawaiian staple consisting of two giant scoops of white rice, some “potato mac”–an inspired solution to the eternal dilemma: potato salad versus macaroni–some type of grilled or breaded or deep-friend meat, and a sweet and sour sauce.
But first, we had to try the Musubi.
For reasons still unclear to me, Mauians have a long standing love affair with Spam, that canned luncheon meat that many of us consumed in the dark days of our youth before salsa and Caesar salad and pasta–aside from the Kraft boxed spaghetti dinner–came to be part of the suburban North American diet. In fact, Hawaii is the spam capital of the United States, a title it has maintained since the meat-like product was first introduced to the islands during WWII.
At Da Kitchen, the Spam Musubi is encased in sushi rice and seaweed, then doused in Panko and deep fried. The fist-sized ball of goodness comes unadorned on a plain white plate, and as the server’s lack of concern about procuring our cutlery with any speed suggests, is consumed lukewarm.
Surprisingly, what resonates on the tongue after the first mouthful is the taste of seaweed, with the spam offering only a slight meaty aftertaste and a glisten of fat on the lips. What resonates in the stomach long afterward is the starchy excess. Though there is little in Maui to remind one that they are in the US, the portion sizes–both in restaurants, and at the Costco, where things are almost literally twice as big as they are in Montreal–are a clear indication. Luckily, we had read about the size of the plate lunches and so had ordered two to share between four.
Once again, though the pulled kalua pork was as tasty and as tender as promised, it was the literal weight of the lunch that lingered long afterward in our minds. And it was only after our short trek to the lush and verdant Iao valley, and our time spent gazing at the phallic landform that is the Iao needle, that we were able to even contemplate what to procure for our evening meal.
And now, as I sit here on the lanai, with the ever-present birdsong and the crash of waves lapping upon the shore, with the Maui onions grilling on the barbecue and my fruity drink by my side, with the sea turtles and the sky in the distance turning pink and orange over the horizon, I wonder why on earth it took me so long to get here. And like Mark Twain before me, I will pass the coming week with pleasure, knowing that when I do have to finally bid it farewell, I will do so with great, great affection.